A Chinese garden at Penrhyn Castle

Detail from the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. NT 1422110

Detail from the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. NT 1422110. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

The autumn issue of National Trust Magazine, which is about to come out, has this image on the cover. It is the Chinese wallpaper in the State bedroom at Penrhyn Castle, depicting a garden scene. We were able to commission these new photographs for my forthcoming book on Chinese wallpapers, which will come out in October.

Section of the bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. NT 1422110

Section of the bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. NT 1422110. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

We can see luxuriantly flowering trees and shrubs, some growing from decorative jardinières, with various birds and insects flitting between the branches. The picturesque rocks, prized for their sculptural qualities, are a long-standing feature of Chinese gardens.

The scenery has been painted in great detail and looks quite realistic. But in fact most of these birds and flowers have traditionally had strong symbolic associations in Chinese art. A pheasant, for instance, stands for ‘beauty’ and a peony indicates ‘rank’.

The State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. The architecture and much of the furniture, created in about 1830, is in the Neo-Norman style, but apparently this was not considered incompatible with Chinese wallpaper. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

The State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. The architecture and much of the furniture, created in about 1830, is in the Neo-Norman style, but evidently this was not considered incompatible with Chinese wallpaper. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

Bird-and-flower imagery has long been used in Chinese fine and decorative art to create an uplifting, auspicious atmosphere, much like classical decoration has in the west.

And if we look at this wallpaper at Penrhyn in that light, we can recognise the sophisticated decorative harmony of the scheme. The painters used lively and yet balanced palette of colours including purples and pinks, reds, oranges and yellows, various green tints and some blues and greys.

Different types of leaves have been given various smooth textures, while the ruggedness of the rocks and tree trunks is rendered in a more expressionistic manner. One can tell that the artists were confident of their skill and judgement in creating these wallpapers. As yet we don’t know who they were, just that they most likely worked in the port city of Guangzhou (or Canton).

5 Responses to “A Chinese garden at Penrhyn Castle”

  1. Andrew Says:

    There is an interesting document at the British Museum website that summarises the traditional symbolic meaning of various flowers, etc, in China. https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Chinese_symbols_1109.pdf

    They say the peony ( 牡丹 mudan) is the “king of flowers”, the flower of spring, and is a symbol of royalty and virtue, and also of wealth and honour. Specifically, I think that is the tree peony.

    Wasn’t the pheasant one of the badges of rank for civil servants?

    Presumably a Chinese person of learning could “read” the wallpaper, just a Western person looking at an allegorical painting?

  2. Lori Curtis Says:

    Would love to share images of the wallpaper from Pebble Hill Plantation in Thomasville, GA. The paper is 18th century. Was installed at Pebble Hill in the 1930’s after being purchased from Gracie’s in NY.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Lori, I had no idea about the Pebble Hill Chinese wallpaper, which from what I can see online looks fascinating. It is interesting to learn that it was supplied by Gracie in the 1930s. There was a distinct taste for Chinese wallpapers in the 1920s and 1930s, a kind of ‘chinoiserie revival’, on both sides of the Atlantic, with a brisk trade in antique Chinese wallpapers.

    Your wallpaper looks quite similar to the Chinese wallpaper at Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire: a similar green background and similar trees with abundant flowers and fruits, and jardinieres on pedestals. More about Broughton Castle can be found here: http://www.broughtoncastle.com/ I also included the Broughton Castle wallpaper in my recent book about Chinese wallpapers in Britain and Ireland, which has just become available in America (http://amzn.to/2BfKY4k).

    I also mention the ‘chinoiserie revival’ phase in my book, as well as the influence of various American taste-makers: Nancy Tree’s use of Chinese wallpaper at Kelmarsh Hall, the purchase of a Chinese wallpaper from an English House for Blair House, Washington, DC, by Douglas and Phyllis Dillon in the 1960s, and the hanging of a Chinese wallpaper from an Irish House in the American ambassador’s residence in London, Winfield House, by Leonore Annenberg and William Haines in about 1970.

    I am always eager to learn about examples of Chinese wallpapers wherever they may be, so thanks very much for letting me know about Pebble Hill Plantation.

  4. Lynne Rutter (The Ornamentalist) Says:

    Dear Mr. de Bruijn, I got your book last month, it’s just stunning! I have been waiting so long for a book on these papers to come out, and you are just the perfect person to have written it. I’ve been following this blog for many years, and the Chinoiserie posts are always my favorites.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Dear Lynne (if I may), thank you so much, that is really nice to hear. I tried to bring together the curatorial and the academic aspects in my book, which at times felt like squaring the circle. But I think we need a lot more books (and exhibitions, and documentaries) in this vein, celebrating the objects in the context of reliable facts and a historical narrative.

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